The Curses of Knowledge and Egocentricity

A few years ago, a good friend (thanks, Tom!) recommended the book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. I read a lot of business books that would put most of the population to sleep. Everyone once in awhile, though, you find a gem that would be fun and informative for everyone.

When I find those, I try to remember to stick them in the Books section of this blog. Made to Stick definitely makes that list.

The Curse of Knowledge

One of the book’s sections talks about “The Curse of Knowledge.”

In a nutshell: The more expertise you gain in a topic, the harder it is for you to remember what it was like to know very little about that topic. Therefore, conveying anything useful on that topic to laymen (fellow team members, for example) becomes difficult.

If you need a touch more background, the guys at 37 Signals have a good post that does it quick justice: The Curse of Knowledge.

I developed a natural resistance to “The Curse of Knowledge” early on. I guess there’s a part of me that just enjoys the mentoring process. Not saying I do that purely from a Mother Theresa perspective, either. I believe that great teams arise when all members see the value in raising the skills and knowledge of all other members. And hey, if you can create such a culture, the benefits will eventually go both ways!

For example: I’ve always been good at math. After exhausting the math curriculum at my small Hoosier high school, I had to spend half a day at the larger, neighboring school in my Junior and Senior years. I’d already been through Calculus when most of my classmates were starting the highest math they’d ever see, Algebra. I started tutoring a few of them. I was immediately able to put myself back in their shoes… back to a time when I didn’t know that “x” (the variable) could represent any number.

In college, I got into some really hairy subjects like Advanced Differential Equations and Control Theory. Even as I engaged in the increasingly arcane levels of math (now, what the hell is a Nyquist plot again?), I continued to pull in sweet cash by tutoring high school students in basic math. Plenty of my college mates had already been infected with The Curse of Knowledge by that point. They just couldn’t get back into the shoes of a struggling 9th grader.

That mentality is rampant in engineering circles. It’s one of the reasons people at dinner parties cringe after asking, “What do you do?” and hearing, “I’m an Engineer.” The ability to shed this curse is also one of the qualities that will propel certain engineers into greater roles of leadership and responsibility.

The Curse of Egocentricity
(Sometimes referred to as “The Curse of Being a Blindered, Close-Minded Asshole.”)

I just made up that term. It describes a related quality that often afflicts people suffering from The Curse of Knowledge. In addition to the inability to convey the idea of some mastered skill, the sufferer also expects any layman to easily adopt that skill.

I routinely hear examples of this curse when CAD users expect everyone to just “pick up” a SolidWorks, Pro/ENGINEER, or NX and be productive.

In CAE circles, for example, you’ll often find highly skilled Masters and PhD simulation experts whose biggest bottleneck is finding someone to “clean up” incoming CAD geometry prior to analysis. I’ve been in company meetings meant to address this issue where a CAD user says, “Ah, come on… you guys are being silly. If you’d just learn a little about our CAD tool, you’d be fine.”

That’s met with a horrified silence from the CAE experts. The CAD user typically misses those facial cues and plows ahead: “Look, just walk through some the tutorials, maybe read a book, watch some online videos, and you’ll be up and running in no time.”

The same thing happens when companies are trying to figure out why so many intelligent, experienced, high-value engineers don’t participate in the 3D conceptual phase of product development. “Uh, because we’re never going to use a CAD tool for 60 hours per week (for a year) in order to maintain some level of CAD expertise. We have bigger issues to think about.”

There’s always at least one CAD user in the meeting who pipes up with, “Ah come on guys, you’re making a mountain out of a mole hill. I can make anything I want in Inventor- and I’m not a full time draftsman.”

Now, I’m a software jockey. I can pretty much figure out how to make any tool work. Photoshop, Video Editing, SaaS CRM, WordPress, CAD… you name it, I can learn it if necessary. But I also know that many of my most brilliant mentors and colleagues do NOT have that ability.

For example, my Mother in Law is one of the kindest, most insightfully creative humans on the planet. We gave her a Flip Mino video camera for Christmas last year. Very simple device featuring a flip-out USB connector that plugs right into her laptop. It came with its own (very basic) video editing software suite. You know what? That’s the perfect tool for her. It would be insane (and in fact counterproductive) for me to push her to a professional tool like Final Cut Pro or Sony Vegas. I certainly don’t think she is less valuable because those tools don’t suit her.

In wrapping up this rant, I’d suggest two action items for all of you:

  1. Do some soul searching and discover if you are personally stricken with either curse.
  2. Learn to recognize when these curses are influencing important team decisions.
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7 comments

  1. spot on, dude! We “all” suffer from this at various levels. It's refreshing to be reminded to open your eyes, you aren't the only smart one in the room.. In fact, if you would just shut up and listen, you might actually learn something.

  2. I am an expert in feedback controls and analysis and modeling of dynamic systems. Feedback controls is a field that is not understood by most engineers, and so it is not possible to communicate to them the details of how a design is done. I solve that problem by using the analysis of the system to drive the design so that the mechanical engineers and electrical engineers have numbers to use in their designs. I have a lot of experience in electronics design and am a natural mechanical engineer which allows me to critique the mechanical designs. I also know how to work with the guys doing FEAs so that the structure is stiff and as light as possible and will withstand whatever shock environment is specified. I think the problem of not communicating with people who are not knowledgeable in your field has to do with your ability as a teacher, and not all people are good at teaching. You do have to start where your audience is. BTW, forget the Nyquist plot and use a Nichols plot. The Nichols plot is a rectilinear, semi-log plot that will get you from open loop to closed loop graphically. It is a very powerful tool for servo design.

  3. Exactly, Bruce. “You do have to start where your audience is.” Thanks for commenting!

  4. Jeff — great observation. I might add that this is not unique to the engineering domain. The general word for this ability is “empathy”, (which contrary to popular belief is not a synonym for “sympathy”). It is a key to writing well (as you did). I vividly remember my 10th grade English teacher admonishing me to “remember your audience!”, over and over. Same concept. Also, as you pointed out, this is related to teaching. All of my childrens' elementary school teachers have **liked** kids, but only one has had the ability to understand the differing motivations of each one and then tap in to that to get the most from every student.Finally, I have found that working with kids — I just returned from a week at Cub Scout Summer Camp with my son and 12 of his peers — has really helped me be a better co-worker and mentor back at the job.

  5. CHD, both you and Bruce have commented on the relation to teaching. I actually hadn't really considered that… I thought the teaching bit in this post was really just an example.Great idea, though, for a next action if you find yourself stricken with either curse: Do something with kids in a teaching role to help exercise the empathy muscle!

  6. Wow… great to hear!
    Let me add, though, that living in an egocentric world is absolute hell. (I know this from experience, and am currently trying to change this about myself.)

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to share a piece from my recent journal entry:

    “The World of an Egocentric, Pathological Solipsist Maniac:

    You are the only one capable of understanding the world you see. In fact, you are the only one who truly exists. All other people are figments of an otherwise empty imagination. It’s a nihilist world where the outcome of anything is arbitrary. All things can be escaped simply by waiting for them to leave. All developed characteristics and social skills are there for the purpose of guiding and manipulating reality. A conversation is unengaged, robotic acting. Emotions exist because of the unfortunate way in which Darwinism favours them. All things are deterministic. All social relations are an act in order to appease the other robots that surround you. You see all others as dumb, self-unaware robots who could not possibly understand you. You use others for your own success, and never appreciate their inherent worth. Success of others rips you apart. Being wrong is your absolute biggest fear. And even if reality does seem to suggest that you’re wrong, you simply need to hide in the fake imaginary world you’ve created to suppress it and hide from it. Even expert psychologists couldn’t possibly understand you, simply because they are robots, or figments of your reality, to which nothing they say can ever apply to you. ”

    Well so… yea. It’s hell. Trust me, I know.. hahah… But seriously the point I’m trying to make is that often the most selfish, egotistical kind of people out there are actually suffering more than you could imagine. And often those personality characteristics develop due to some sort of abuse/emotional neglect etc during childhood.

    Anyways I apologize if that was too personal… I just thought it would be cool to share, as I’m guessing the vulnerabilities of egotistical maniacs are rarely revealed… hehe.

    Cheers

    1. Thanks Evan… I just got really depressed reading that!